Be Your Own Mother
My favorite piece of wisdom, courtesy of the FAA, is this: “Put your own oxygen mask on first.”
I’ve traveled a lot over the past several years, for comedy gigs and author events in four countries (guess what? Norway has great comedy crowds). I’ve spent a lot of time on planes. Out of respect for the hardworking flight attendants who may or may not have to save me from certain death or walk my agoraphobic ass through a panic attack, I watch the in-flight safety demonstration.
My favorite part is when they tell us to put on our own oxygen masks first before assisting a child or anyone else.
I really appreciate that now.
But when I was a kid, I was horrified by that suggestion. Why wouldn’t they want to be sure to save the kids first? What if an adult put on an oxygen mask and went to help a kid but it was too late for some awful reason? What if all the babies died? (Suffice to say I was an anxious child.)
But as an adult, I’ve learned that I must take care of myself first before I’m able to take care of anyone else.
For a long time, I applied that wisdom in theory but not in practice. And I added caveats like, “Well, I’m not a mother, so I get to be selfish, but things will change if I ever have a baby” (Jada Pinkett-Smith beautifully explains here why that viewpoint is damaging as hell to women of all ages.)
You know what?
I wasn’t selfish enough.
It does not help that I’m what the DSM-IV defines as “codependent as fuck.” Comedian and activist Whitney Cummings expertly illustrates the problem of codependence in this piece for Lenny Letter. If you’ve heard the term thrown around for years, you may wish to read this to find out what it all really means. I felt a tingle of recognition the first time I read it; I nodded with relief the second time I read it.
Here’s what “codependent” means to me: I got worn down and exhausted by the burden of trying to “fix” other people. People don’t need fixing. That’s condescending. You’re not a superhero and neither am I. People need somebody who loves them and holds them accountable. Note: they do not always WANT this. And there’s no point in forcing it if they’d rather fuck/drink/smoke/spend the pain away (trust me: I’ve tried all of it except the smoke part.)
I also let people take advantage of me because I thought that if I gave them things (physically, emotionally, socially, financially, professionally, sexually) they wouldn’t leave me. Sometimes they asked; sometimes I offered; often we got into a cycle in which they took because they knew they could and I gave because I thought it made me better, wiser, smarter, kinder. I was a helper. I was a giver. I was really good.
To be clear: I am helpful and giving and really good. And I’ve been a victim and a survivor. But I have inherent worth, and not just because of what I can do for other people. There are better ways to feed my ego than ride my jankity Yacht of Self around the world subsisting on fumes, collecting needy-ass barnacle humans as I go.
(I’m also an asshole sometimes. That’s not bullshit either. But I’m mostly amazing. And, perhaps, so are you.)
Over the past several years, I helped so hard I almost helped myself out of health and happiness.
And then, thank goodness, I stopped.
I did other things instead. Spent some time crying, spent some time thinking. Walked around a lot. Changed my hair. Talked to a professional (a counselor this time, not just my hairdresser although she is a therapeutic genius in her own way). Said no when a loved one asked me to mediate a dispute. Closed my proverbial Rolodex to all but the ones I deem most worthy because they show up for me, so I’ll show up for them. Found an Al-Anon meeting. Found a CODA meeting. Learned the revolutionary saying, “You didn’t break it and you can’t fix it.”
And of course I remembered the deepest wisdom I’ve encountered since I first read Ricardo Eliécer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto (also known as Pablo Neruda) in high school: “Put your own oxygen mask on first.”
Thanks, FAA. For this, and for all that air traffic control stuff.
As I write this, early on a Los Angeles morning before the grey-blue sunrise, we’re winding down from Mother’s Day. People are preparing to go to work, to make small talk at coffee shops and in carpools and while dropping kids off at school. The question, “So what’d you do for Mother’s Day?” will come up because it’s an easy one, tied to something that just happened and that is considered by many to be a universally celebrated holiday.
You know what I did for Mother’s Day?
I took care of my own damn self.
I didn’t get a massage or a mani-pedi or a new vibrator although all of those things are wondrous indeed. I also didn’t hang out with my mom, who lives 3,000 miles away. I talked to her and wished her a happy day, as I did with the other mothers in my life.
This Mother’s Day, I did what I hope all moms equip their children to do: I mothered myself.
I put on makeup. I hung out with a new friend and some adoptable kittens. I went for a walk. I ate noodles. I bought a cool candle that smells like coffee and sits in a recycled beer bottle. I took the makeup off. I took a nap. I woke up. I did the dishes. I cleaned my house, a little. I lit the candle. I read a lovely script. I ate overnight oats that didn’t actually sit overnight — they sat for three hours and they tasted great.
I updated my website. I updated my calendar. I saw that the New Yorker had published a letter I wrote in response to a brilliant piece by Siddhartha Mukherjee on how mental illness runs in families. I knew they were going to publish it; I just didn’t know it was up yet. That article spoke volumes to me. In some ways, I think it informed what I’m writing here. I hope Dr. Mukherjee sees it and knows how he has helped many of us.
I listened to my own advice — my most recent book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs, contains a chapter entitled “Life is Too Short For Shitty Friends.” I did some metaphorical housecleaning. Nothing elaborate or dramatic, mind you — an unfollow here; a mute there; a resolution to stop trying to curry favor from people who do not wish to give it. Nothing that warrants a mic drop or a cheerleading trick. Nothing that would make anybody say, “YES, girl” while nodding in spiritual affirmation.
Sometimes you have to cut away the dead wood to make room for new growth. That’s true internally and externally, literally and metaphorically. And sometimes folks who’ve been in your life a little or a lot for a short time or a long time have demonstrated they’ve used up all their chances. You can cut them off or you can fade away or you can do whatever you want so long as it’s ethical. But do get rid of them, as much as you can.
Repeat after me: “I don’t have to be nice to everybody. I don’t have to be anything to anybody. I can just be me, as well as I can, and do my best to filter out the jerks.”
We all need a jerk filter in life, and if anyone ever invents one that works, I will be happy to contribute to your Kickstarter. Jerks are jerks whether they’re jerky by nature (NOT CUZ I HATECHA) or nurture. It really doesn’t matter to me. If somebody’s nice to you and awful to me, that person’s a jerk. I’d prefer not to engage. You do with that person what you will.
I did something else on Mother’s Day — I asked for what I needed when I needed it. Because I, the one addicted to helping, needed help with something. So I asked.
I offered help, too — not out of a desire to be loved but out of a genuine desire to help. I couldn’t give a lot, but I gave a little.
Often, a little is more than enough.
You may be a mother to others. You may also be a dutiful child who does eldercare or sibling care. But I want you to remember this also: first be your own mother. And raise yourself right, please. You will benefit — as will we all.